International

The Brutality of Sugar: Debt, Child Marriage and Hysterectomies


“I had to rush to work immediately after the operation, as we had taken an advance,” Ms. Chaure said. “We neglect our health in front of money.”

Sugar producers and buyers have known about this abusive system for years. Coca-Cola’s consultants, for example, visited the fields and sugar mills of western India and, in 2019, reported that children were cutting sugar cane and laborers were working to repay their employers. They documented this in a report for the company, complete with an interview with a 10-year-old girl.

In an unrelated corporate report that year, the company said that it was supporting a program to “gradually reduce child labor” in India.

Labor abuse is endemic in Maharashtra, not limited to any particular mill or farm, according to a local government report and interviews with dozens of workers. Maharashtra sugar has been sweetening cans of Coke and Pepsi for more than a decade, according to an executive at NSL Sugars, which operates mills in the state.

PepsiCo, in response to a list of findings from The Times, confirmed that one of its largest international franchisees buys sugar from Maharashtra. The franchisee just opened its third manufacturing and bottling plant there. A new Coke factory is under construction in Maharashtra, and Coca-Cola confirmed that it, too, buys sugar in the state.

These companies use the sugar primarily for products sold in India, industry officials say. PepsiCo said the company and its partners purchase a small amount of sugar from Maharashtra, relative to total production in the state.

Both companies have published codes of conduct prohibiting suppliers and business partners from using child and forced labor.

“The description of the working conditions of sugar-cane cutters in Maharashtra is deeply concerning,” PepsiCo said in a statement. “We will engage with our franchisee partners to conduct an assessment to understand the sugar-cane cutter working conditions and any actions that may need to be taken.”

Coca-Cola declined to comment on a detailed list of questions.

The heartland of this exploitation is the district of Beed, an impoverished, rural region of Maharashtra that is home to much of the migrant sugar-cutting population. One local government report surveyed approximately 82,000 female sugar-cane workers from Beed, and found that about one in five had had hysterectomies. A separate, smaller government survey estimated the figure at one in three.

“The thinking of women is, if we get the surgery, then we’ll be able to work more,” said Deepa Mudhol-Munde, the district’s magistrate, or top civil servant.

The abuses continue — despite local government investigations, news reports and warnings from company consultants — because everyone says somebody else is responsible.

Big Western companies have policies pledging to root out human rights abuses in their supply chains. In practice, they seldom if ever visit the fields and largely rely on their suppliers, the sugar-mill owners, to oversee labor issues.

The mill owners, though, say that they do not actually employ the workers. They hire contractors to recruit migrants from far-off villages, transport them to the fields and pay their wages. How those workers are treated, the owners say, is between them and the contractors.

Those contractors are often young men whose only qualification is that they own a vehicle. They are merely doling out the mill owners’ money, they say. They could not possibly dictate working conditions or terms of employment.

Nobody pushes women to get hysterectomies as a form of population control. In fact, having children is commonplace. Because girls typically marry young, many have children in their teens.

Instead, they seek hysterectomies in hopes of stopping their periods, as a drastic form of uterine cancer prevention or to end the need for routine gynecological care.

“I couldn’t afford to miss work to see the doctor,” said Savita Dayanand Landge, a sugar-cane worker in her 30s who got a hysterectomy last year because she hoped it would end her need to visit doctors.

India is the world’s second largest sugar producer, and Maharashtra accounts for about a third of that production. In addition to supplying Indian and Western companies, the state has exported sugar to more than a dozen countries, where it disappeared into the global supply chain.

The abuses are born from the Maharashtra sugar industry’s peculiar setup. In other sugar regions, farm owners recruit local workers and pay them wages.

Maharashtra operates differently. About a million workers, typically from Beed, migrate for days to fields in the south and west. Throughout the harvest, from about October to March, they move from field to field, carting their belongings with them.

Instead of wages from farm owners, they receive an advance — often around $1,800 per couple, or roughly $5 a day per person for a six-month season — from a mill contractor. This century-old system reduces labor costs for sugar mills.



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